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When Force Works

Friday, January 7, 2011

The latest developments on the Korean peninsula suggest that Seoul’s new, more forceful posturing has been effective, and that the North is desperate for a reprieve from South Korean pressure.

South Korea has finally succeeded in putting North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il back on his heels. The latest developments on the Korean peninsula suggest that Seoul’s new, more forceful posturing has been effective, and that the North is desperate for a reprieve from South Korean pressure.

Pyongyang’s response to the December 20 South Korean live-fire artillery exercise on Yeonpyeong Island provides reason for hope. While the North had threatened to retaliate to such exercises with an attack that would “be deadlier than what was made on November 23 in terms of the powerfulness and sphere of the strike,” bluster gave way to a whimper. There were no “brutal consequences beyond imagination.” Instead, the North issued a statement claiming that it “did not feel any need to retaliate” and asserting that “the world should properly know who is the true champion of peace and who is the real provocateur of a war.”

The new turn in South Korea’s strategy towards the North surely had much to do with the North’s failure to retaliate as threatened. The South is standing up for itself in a way it has not done in years. The Seoul leadership’s rhetoric has been strong and without nuance. On November 29, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak assured that, in response to future attacks by North Korea, “We will make sure that it pays a dear price without fail.” On December 3, the new South Korean defense minister promised at his confirmation hearing that “if there are further provocations, we will definitely use aircraft to bomb North Korea.”

The South is standing up for itself in a way it has not done in years.

Following this, as South Korean marines engaged in artillery drills on Yeonpyeong Island, armed forces throughout the country went on high alert and F-15Ks took to the skies, ready to keep the defense minister’s promise if so ordered.

North Korea backed down before a real military threat. Pyongyang’s leaders proved unwilling to start a fight they cannot win. In adopting an assertive posture, Seoul is finally teaching Kim Jong-Il and his compatriots that there are consequences for their actions.

The pressure—from a South Korean military on alert; from U.S. joint military exercises in the region; from the halting of southern aid—is influencing the North. Perhaps dismayed by Seoul’s outright refusal to return to the six-party talks following the November 23 shelling, North Korea invited outgoing New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson to Pyongyang for unofficial talks.

North Korean officials reportedly told Richardson they are willing to allow United Nations nuclear inspectors into the Yongbyon nuclear complex and to sell 12,000 plutonium rods to the South. These are notable concessions, but it is unclear what the North expects in return and whether these concessions would actually curtail the North’s efforts at building nuclear weapons.

South Korean and U.S. officials should avoid the temptation to return to six-party talks.

Just prior to shelling Yeonpyeong, North Korea made public its uranium enrichment facility at Yongbyon. Since then, South Korean and American intelligence officials have asserted their belief that Pyongyang has built a number of other secret uranium enrichment facilities throughout the country. In other words, inspecting Yongbyon is useless if other nuclear facilities remain secret; likewise, exporting plutonium rods is a hollow win if the North has decided to pursue uranium weaponization instead.

South Korean and U.S. officials should avoid the temptation to return to six-party talks, even given the results of Richardson’s negotiations in Pyongyang. The governor described the concessions as “important progress.” But this progress is not enough to suggest that the North is ready to forfeit its nuclear weapons program or to halt its violent provocations against the South.

It is unfortunate that Stephen Bosworth, U.S. special representative for North Korea Policy, is now in Asia pushing for an early resumption of the six-party talks. It appears that, ahead of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington, the Obama administration is now reversing course and encouraging South Korea to stand down.

Bluster gave way to a whimper.

But Seoul should keep up the pressure on its northern neighbor. The South Korean military should maintain its current high tempo of military exercises, and Seoul should keep up its tough rhetoric. Lee should once and for all end Southern investment in the Kaesong Industrial Park, whose profits nourish Pyongyang’s leadership. The South should step up funding for radio stations which transmit to the North, and the army should threaten to blast propaganda messages across the demilitarized zone—as in all autocracies, the leadership fears the population’s access to information, perhaps above all else.

South Korean pressure on the North has been working, and the South has nonviolent ways to increase that pressure. Seoul should see what other concessions Pyongyang may be willing to offer. If North Korea eventually offers to verifiably abandon its nuclear weapons program and demonstrates its sincerity to do so by halting preparations for a spring nuclear test, then it might be time to return to negotiations. That would be real progress.

Michael Mazza is a senior research associate at the American Enterprise Institute.

FURTHER READING: Mazza tracks Asian military politics, advising, “Deter Pyongyang through Beijing” and discussing “The Red Menace” from North Korea, China’s expansionist strategy in “China and the Lost Pearls,” and the National Security Administration’s downgrade on China in “I Spy? Not Anymore.” Dan Blumenthal offers “Obama’s Asia Policy: Time for Reflection,” and John Bolton agrees, “North Korea: Not the Time for Talks.”

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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